Can we trust our intuition? (A question from a reader about the start of the universe)

December 26th, 2017 in clues. Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I am grateful to a reader Mustahsin Mir, who asked me some questions about an argument in the book Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism by David Mills.

I haven’t read the book, but the argument can be followed in Amazon’s Look Inside, with Mustahsin’s questions relating to the section on page 78. I thought it interesting and worth commenting on.

The argument

David Mills has been discussing the theistic argument from the origin of the universe and the question Why is there something rather than nothing?. In summary, he seems to be making these points:

  1. Our common sense tells us that “everything we observe on Earth does indeed seem, at one point, to come into existence”, and therefore that the universe must have had a beginning too. (The idea that everything that begins to exist has a cause is sometimes called the Causal Principle.)
  2. But our common sense isn’t always true. For example, if a man drops a bowling ball and fires a bullet perfectly horizontally from a pistol, our common sense would tell us that the bowling ball would hit the ground first, but in fact in ideal conditions they should hit the ground at the same time.
  3. Science based on experimental results gives true knowledge, much better than common sense.
  4. The conservation of mass-energy is a scientific law that means that mass-energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form, so therefore the universe must always have existed.
  5. Therefore science shows that there is something rather than nothing, and always has been. The universe doesn’t have a cause and there is no need to think that God created it.

Common sense and science

Common sense is mostly reliable

It is obviously true that our common observations and the conclusions we draw from them are not always reliable, but they mostly are, otherwise we wouldn’t survive.

I think I see a dog in the street, common sense tells me that there must be a dog in the street, and the fact is, there is indeed a dog in the street. Common sense tells me the sun with rise tomorrow morning, and very probably it will.

So it seems clear to me that common sense is more often right than wrong, and the argument has overstated the problems with common sense.

Science is organised common sense.

Science is a better form of common sense. Our common sense is based on experience and reason – for example, a child learns by experience (or by listening when told) that the stove is hot, and so deduces that it is smarter to be careful around the stove.

The scientific method follows a similar process of observation and deduction, but it is more organised and disciplined. It requires formulation of a hypothesis and a means of testing that hypothesis via a prediction, the observations are made or the experiment conducted and the prediction and the hypothesis are either supported or not supported. The whole process is generally repeatable. as a further test.

In the end, both processes require observation of real events, deduction, learning, perhaps re-thinking. Both processes may be repeated to reinforce the conclusions. Both are subject to error but are generally reliable. Science is more reliable because it is more disciplined, but if our powers of observation and reasoning are faulty, then both common sense and science will be faulty.

Beware you might prove too much

If our common observation and reasoning processes were really unreliable, then the whole argument constructed by David Mills would be unreliable too. If he were right, he would have undercut his own argument.

Science and the origin of the universe

The start of the universe is more than common sense

Mills suggests that the conclusion that the universe must have had a start is based on common sense, but that isn’t totally true. Cosmologists are now virtually certain, based on the evidence, that our universe indeed had a start at the big bang. Of course there is the hypothesis that our universe is part of a larger entity sometimes known as the multiverse, but that hypothesis is nowhere near being established by science, and many cosmologists think it can never be. So known science says our universe began, and uncertain science suggests something may have existed before that.

The second law of thermodynamics also offers good reason to think the universe had a beginning. Entropy is a physical quantity that describes the amount of a system’s thermal energy that is no longer available for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system. When all a system’s energy is unavailable (i.e. entropy reaches its maximum), nothing more can happen unless something comes into the system from outside.

The second law says that entropy in the universe is always increasing. So in infinite time, if the universe is infinitely old, entropy would have necessarily reached its maximum state, and nothing more could occur in the entire universe. We clearly haven’t reached that state yet, therefore the universe cannot be infinitely old.

Philosophers and mathematicians also argue about whether an infinite series of events is possible. We know we cannot count to infinity, so it seems logical that we cannot count from infinity past to reach the present time. So it seems that the concept of an infinite series of events in time past is absurd, though not all philosophers and mathematicians would agree with that.

So there are strong reason, in addition to common sense, to believe that the universe had a beginning.

Does everything that begins to exist have a cause?

David Mills admits that this seems to be the case with everything we observe on earth and in the universe. But he argues that this Causal Principle may not be the case with the universe as a whole. We cannot scientifically prove that the universe has a cause, and our common sense may be wrong.

But this principle is more than common sense. Everything we have ever observed appears to have a cause.

(It is sometimes objected that quantum events don’t have a cause, but I think this is misleading. It is true that quantum events are unpredictable, but they cannot occur without a fluctuating quantum field, so the field is part of the reason why the event occurs, and is in that sense a cause.)

So if someone wants to claim that the origin of the universe as a whole doesn’t follow what we have observed in every other case, then we need a strong argument in support, not just a claim that common sense isn’t always right.

Does the conservation of mass-energy prove the universe is eternal?

This is where the argument is interesting, because Mills argues that the conservation of mass-energy is an established scientific principle, which would be contradicted if the universe, with all its enormous mass-energy, appeared out of nowhere.

It seems to me that there are two ways to answer this objection:

Does energy conservation apply at the start of the universe?

The conservation of mass-energy and the causal principle are both observations that seem to apply everywhere we have ever observed. If one may not apply to the universe as a whole, neither may the other. David cannot consistently reject the applicability of the Causal Principle for the start of the universe yet hold that the conservation of mass-energy must apply.

But it is more complex than that. Apparently the law of conservation of mass-energy isn’t as universal as David Mills thinks. In general relativity, energy is not conserved, and if space is expanding, then energy is not conserved. Further, the currently known laws of physics do not apply at the first moments of the big bang and cosmology is unable to say what happened back then. So it is doubtful that this argument from the conservation of energy can be sustained scientifically.

So it seems that neither principle is certainly true for the start of the universe, but both may be probable. So there is a dilemma – two principles that appear to be in contradiction.

Resolving the dilemma

In summary, we have three principles that seem to be very well based in reality:

  1. The second law of thermodynamics and entropy seem to point to the universe having a beginning.
  2. The Causal Principle seems to point to the universe having a beginning and an external cause.
  3. Mass-energy conservation seems to point to the universe not beginning, with some caveats.

I cannot see how Mills’ argument offers any solution to this dilemma. It offers no real argument why we should accept the conservation of energy over the Causal Principle and the second law, especially as there are significant doubts over the applicability of energy conservation at the start of the big bang.

But the dilemma can be easily resolved if there is some reality outside the physical universe. We would no longer have a closed system and energy could enter the universe from outside.

Of course the obvious reality outside the universe capable of creating energy and the universe itself, is God. Hence the theistic argument based on the origin of the universe.


It seems to me that David’s interesting argument has strengthened the case of the existence of a creator God, rather than weakened it.

His argument raises several issue that it cannot resolve, it ignores entropy, and its assessment of energy conservation isn’t accurate. In the end it is unable to explain the universe’s existence. In contrast, creation by God explains all the science and the logic, and resolves the dilemmas.

What do you think?

Photo: Part of the Lesser Magellanic Cloud Galaxy (NASA